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The Jefferson Qur'an

Alexandra Méav Jerome
The College of William and Mary

On December 9th, 1805, Thomas Jefferson hosted the United States' first iftar at the White House. It was an unintentional event, one that occurred as a result of Jefferson's scheduled meeting with an invited envoy from the Tunisian government. It was the end of the first Barbary War, and Jefferson was anxious to establish better diplomatic relations with the North African states while ensuring the security of American interests in the Mediterranean. Upon being informed of the envoy's fasting to observe the Islamic month of Ramadan, Jefferson had the mealtime at the White House changed from 3:30 in the afternoon to "precisely at sunset" in an effort to accommodate his guest. This gesture on behalf of the president was not simply a diplomatic one, but one that demonstrated Jefferson's familiarity and comfort with Islam, a faith that interested him since his time as a student at the College of William & Mary. Indeed, Jefferson's interest in the Qur'an and his own study of Arabic led to his active promotion and eventual creation of an Oriental Languages department at his alma mater. As a scholar and a diplomat, Jefferson was keenly aware and interested in the world outside of America and the importance of cultural and intellectual capital to the success of the United States. In studying his Qur'an and the documents that he produced as a part of his nation-building efforts, we see just how Jefferson deployed his knowledge and perhaps how influential Islam was to of one of the nation's founding fathers.

Early American Interest in Islam

American interest in Islam and the Qur'an did not begin with Thomas Jefferson's serendipitous purchase of a Qur'an while a student, but dates as far back as the nation's Puritan forefathers. The firebrand preacher Cotton Mather is said to have devoured books written about the Ottoman Empire and referenced the Qur'an on numerous occasions. Benjamin Franklin, parodying a North African pirate addressing a colonial audience in the 17th century asked his audience, "Is it worse to follow Mahomet than the Devil?"i, a question it seems he did not receive an answer to from amongst his many readers. Even John Adams knew enough of Islam to discuss it.ii In fact, Adam, like many early Americans, from German immigrants to Pennsylvania to our founding fathers, owned copies of the Qur'an.iii Although it may surprise many contemporary Americans that the Puritans read outside the gospel and Franklin and Adams were well-versed in the diversity of the world's faiths, these were men who had a profound and insatiable intellectual curiosity and political genius in that they understood, collectively, that this knowledge was essential to the success of the early colonies as well as to the establishment of a sovereign and sustainable nation state. Unsurprisingly, given his reputation as a voracious reader and humanist, Jefferson was perhaps the most attuned to this necessity of learning about world religions and the social systems and governments that they created. Indeed, it is really through Jefferson, more than any other early American statesman, that we understand the early importance and impact of Islam upon the new republic.

Jefferson purchased his copy of George Sale's translation of the Qur'an at a bookseller on Duke of Gloucester Street while completing his legal studies at The College of William and Mary. This translation of the Qur'an, the best transcribed into English up to that moment, was prefaced with Sale's own introduction:

If the religious and civil Institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of, must needs be so.iv

Sale was also a lawyer and his introduction to the Qur'an as a law book is important for understanding how Jefferson read and related to the Qur'an. Sale placed a heavy emphasis on the notion of Quranic exegesis, treating the Qur'an as it was: a sourcebook for Islamic law.

A further influence on Jefferson's treatment of the Qur'an during his legal studies came from the work of Samuel von Pufendorf, a 17th century German legal scholar whose Of the Law of Nature and Nations, was the preeminent work on comparative law during the period that Jefferson was studying law. In his work, von Pufendorf cites Islam, usually disapprovingly but also with a characteristically rigid, moralistic Protestant worldview, which sometimes unexpectedly lent itself to praise of the Qur'an. He praises Islam vis-à-vis the Qur'an for its laws against games of chance; its emphasis on moral behavior and dress, and the encouragement to establish peace amongst nations.v European legal scholars, as well as for Jefferson, found it difficult to completely discount the contents of the Qur'an. Continuously mining for reasons to critique and discredit Islam, there were occasions where scholars praised Islam, particularly in its stringent prescriptions for morality and justice.vi There is little doubt that Jefferson was influenced by not only von Pufendorf's writing and his legal study, but also in the context of Deism and the American Revolution.

The Law, Deism, and the Qur'an

There are two ways in which Jefferson understood the Qur'an; the first is as a law book. As a legal document, the Qur'an, together with the Hadith and Sunnah, are the scaffolding upon which the Shari'a or Islamic Law is erected. Jefferson understood this implicitly about the Qur'an, probably as a result of his own legal training. In this legalistic understanding of the Qur'an, he was able to probe the text for information for his diplomatic endeavors, particularly those involving the Barbary States. However, there was a second means by which Jefferson understood the Qur'an and that is through his adherence to Deism.

A slightly heretical view to possess in Christendom, Deism espoused the idea that there is a single all-powerful creator (God, Allah, etc.), but that this creator does not intervene in or manipulate human affairs. The deistic view of religion is firmly rooted in natural rather than supernatural law. Jefferson, educated amongst the intellectual elite of the Enlightenment, was very much taken with Deism's ideas and became one of its many 18th century followers. Of the many tenets of Deism, the one that is most consistent with Islamic belief is the rejection of the Trinity. As the Qur'an emphatically states: "Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God (Qur'an 5:72)."vii For Jefferson and other Deists, this core aspect of Islamic belief made Islam marginally more relatable than Christianity.

In his analysis of the Qur'an, Jefferson did not follow the precedent set by the so'called "Jefferson Bible," in which Jefferson chose a copy of the Bible from his library and enacted a "Deist approach" to the text by literally removing every supernatural or otherwise scientifically unsound event with a razor blade. Happily, he left his copy of the Qur'an completely intact. If we examine how Jefferson read the Qur'an, we can see where, in contrast to the literal removal of everything that was antithetical to Deism as in the Jefferson Bible, Jefferson did feel the need to perform an intellectual autopsy on the Qur'an, perhaps because the Qur'an is relatively light on miracles, compared to the Bible. For whatever reason, Jefferson refrained from disemboweling his Qur'an and instead put it to good use in both state-building and the fledgling America's relationship with the Middle East.

During the periods when Jefferson was not using his copy of the Qur'an to study for legal or political purposes, the text was housed in his library at Monticello. Jefferson's methodology for organizing his books was of his own rendering, essentially storing the titles on shelves according to their topics and—in the case of religion—where he felt that the faith they represented figured into the grand scheme of the universe. At first glance, it appears that Jefferson ordered his books chronologically from Pagan (Greek mythology) to Christian. However, Jefferson placed the Qur'an immediately following texts on Greek mythology, but before copies of the Bible, and copies of the Old and New Testament. Some scholars argue that Jefferson's placement of the Qur'an indicates that he considered Islam to be an improvement over Paganism, but still ranked below Judaism and Christianity.viii Does this provide any insight into what Jefferson really thought about Islam—that, despite his pluralistic worldview, Jefferson's sympathies truly lay with Christianity? This may be partially the truth, but there is more to Jefferson's logic.

Early copies of the Qur'an, such as those acquired by Adams, Jefferson and others, often included brief histories or introductions to the text as a means of giving early Orientalists and curious readers some context. If we think about Jefferson's interest in historical precedent and culture in relation to religious belief and practice, his placement of the Qur'an ahead of the Judeo-Christian scriptures seems logical. One way that Jefferson may have approached his ranking of texts involves comparing pre-Islamic practices with those of Islam. In his study, Jefferson may have examined how much was appropriated from pre-monotheistic traditions into each of the three Abrahamic faiths, thereby establishing degrees of removal from what he considered to be Paganism. Islam indeed incorporated some aspects of pre-Islamic practice and converted them into Islamic ones, or in Islamic understanding, re-dedicated them to monotheism. For example, pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca pre-existed Muhammad. Muslims believe that the sanctuary had originally been built by Abraham and dedicated to what was believed to be the only god, but that gradually people had developed beliefs in other gods and placed their icons in the Kaaba. Muslims believe that Muhammad cleared these idols from the Kaaba and rededicated it to God. By contrast, Christianity may have appeared to Jefferson to have fewer pre-monotheistic elements. For that reason, Jefferson may have considered Christianity to be superior to Islam.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Qur'an

Whether or not Jefferson was also familiar with the Constitution of Medina—the document dictated by Muhammad to govern relations among the diverse Muslim and Jewish tribes in Medina—is unknown. As legislative documents, there are similarities between the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Qur'an. Some of the contents of the Constitution of Medina, particularly in the inclusion of the unification and protection of a people regardless of creed under the government, equal rights, and protection of religious groups, are articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Did the contents of the Qur'an and perhaps even the Constitution of Medina influence Jefferson when he authored the two most important documents in American history?

The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution contain similar clauses on some topics. The Constitution of Medina states: "The Jews shall maintain their own religion and the Muslims theirs...The close friends of Jews are as themselves" and "those who followed them and joined them and struggled with them. They form one and the same community" in solidarity against their enemies. Finally, the conclusion of the Constitution states, "Strangers, under protection, shall be treated on the same ground as their protectors; but no stranger shall be taken under protection except with consent of his tribe...No woman shall be taken under protection without the consent of her family." ix If Jefferson was familiar with the Constitution of Medina, the document may have influenced his inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," an almost dogmatic belief in American culture.x

Reflections of the Constitution of Medina and the Qur'an can also be discerned from the U.S. Constitution. The first Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, was originally called the "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom." In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted that the contents of the bill and that he was emphatic that the language of the bill should name precisely the groups protected, writing that "the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every [emphasis mine] denomination" should be protected under the law.xi Despite not knowing what Jefferson's familiarity may have been with the Constitution of Medina, we can still see the influence of certain elements of its teaching within the Qur'an, in particular Surah 2:62: "Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."xii The interpretation of this verse is traditionally that those who are members of the Abrahamic family of faiths are protected from both spiritual and social persecution. Did Jefferson find inspiration in this surah? Perhaps.

In 1788, when the states voted to ratify the Constitution, the issue of non-Christian identification was part of the debate. In particular, a lively debate was conducted over Article VI, Section 3 which states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."xiii A similar clause appears in the Constitution of Medina, where loyalty to the state is not tested by religious affiliation but by demonstrated loyalty and that demonstration guarantees the protection of the tribe or state. In North Carolina, delegates debated the amendment deploying the hypothetical situation of a Muslim president.xiv

Whether or not Jefferson was influenced by the Constitution of Medina or his study of the Qur'an in authoring either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, we may never know. But we can conjecture that his understanding of Islam and other world religions, compounded with his remarkable education at the College of William and Mary, which was informed intellectually by the Enlightenment, shaped his crafting of American national pride.

The Barbary Wars

In 1786, while Jefferson was serving as the United States Ambassador to France, the issue of piracy in the Mediterranean became the most serious economic threat to the newly established United States. Independence from Great Britain had had economic consequences abroad. This was before international law had established protections for territorial waters, so if a ship sailed into range from a country with which the local government had no treaty, it was generally assumed to be hostile and therefore subject to attack. While America was still a group of colonies of the British Crown, its ships were protected because the Crown had such a treaty and paid an annual tribute to the government in Tripoli to protect its interests. But with the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. lost the protection of both the royal coffers and the royal navy, making travel and trade a precarious endeavor around the coast of the Maghreb. Pirates from the modern-day states of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia attacked American merchant ships trading in the region with abandon.

Jefferson, together with his contemporary, John Adams, who was then serving as the Ambassador to England, met with the Ambassador from Tripoli, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, in an attempt to understand why American ships were being attacked and Americans being taken hostage. In a report to the then Secretary of State John Jay, Jefferson cites the Ambassador as saying:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy's ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.xv

Scholars recognize the ambassador's paraphrasing of the "Sword Verse" (Surah 9:5), as the Qur'anic passage sometimes used to justify jihad is popularly known. The document is an excellent summation of the pirate's motivations. It may also be read as an eerie foreshadowing of the rationale claimed by some terrorists today. But Jefferson's understanding of the Qur'an resulted in a very different outcome from today's Global War on Terror. The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli was Congress's response to the pirating of American ships in the Mediterranean. Drafted by Jefferson's friend and colleague, Joel Barlow, the treaty stated emphatically that "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen."xvi

Nearly two hundred years before the State Department found it necessary to delve into the Qur'an, Jefferson had already done so to great effect. Jefferson again engaged with the Barbary Pirates as President between 1801 and 1805, during the first of what would become known as the Barbary Wars. Politically, this would be one of his last diplomatic engagements with Islam where he utilized his knowledge of the Qur'an for the benefit of the United States. At the conclusion of the first Barbary War, with the United States procuring its first victory on foreign shores, a temporary peace was reached and Jefferson extended an invitation to the Tunisian Ambassador in Washington to attend dinner at the White House. The invitation happened to fall in the month of Ramadan, and so dinner was rescheduled and became the White House's first iftar. This iftar that marked the conclusion of 1805 and the treaty with at least one of the Barbary States was a symbolic conclusion to Jefferson's documented and known use of the Qur'an and his knowledge of Islam. Surely both Jefferson and his guest could appreciate the breaking of the Ramadan fast, a reward of nourishment after a day of reflection and struggle for personal betterment.

The Legacy of Jefferson's Qur'an

Thomas Jefferson rarely spoke on the topic of religion and did not leave us any written record of his opinion of Islam. But, based on how he used the Qur'an politically, we can conjecture about his attitudes toward what his colleague George Washington called "the children of the Stock of Abraham."xvii He was certainly sympathetic to Islam and to those in the borderlands of the Christian West, but he was also keenly aware of the effect of scripture, whether Biblical or Quranic, on the politics, motivations, and aspirations of nations and empires. At the same time, Jefferson was perhaps influenced by the moral, humanitarian elements of the Qur'an and, as mentioned above, the Constitution of Medina, which may have accompanied his study of Islam. We may never truly know what Jefferson thought about Islam, but what we do know is that the Qur'an served not simply as an exotic book occupying the shelves of Jefferson's Monticello or Adams's Peacefield; on the contrary, the founding fathers knew about Islam, and they thrust themselves into the necessity of knowing. If we excavate the volumes of documents authored by Jefferson and his contemporaries in the early days of the new republic, we find moments wherein Jefferson's Qur'an may well have even influenced the founding, shaping, and sustenance of a newly sovereign nation.

Selected Bibliography

  • Hayes, Kevin J. "How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an," Early American Literature 39:2 (2004): 247-261.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. "Jefferson's Qur'an: What the founder really thought about Islam," Salon, Jan. 9, 2007 (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2007/01/jeffersons_quran.html).
  • Kidd, Thomas S. "Is it worse to follow Mahomet than the Devil?," Church History 72:4 (December 2003): 766-790.
  • Prange, Sebastian R. "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an," Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2011, 2-7.
  • The Constitution of Medina, http://www.constitution.org/cons/medina/macharter.htm [Original Source: Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, trans. A. Guillaume (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1955)] (February 2, 2012).
  • The United States Constitution, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html [Original Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1787)] (Feburary 2, 2012).
  • The Declaration of Independence, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html [Original Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1776)] (February 2, 2012).
  • The Koran, Commonly Called the Alkoran of Mohammed, trans. George Sale (London: 1734)
  • The Sublime Qur'an, trans. Laleh Bakhtiar (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2007)
  • Widmer, Ted. "People of the Book, the True History of the Koran in America," Boston Globe, Sept. 12, 2010 (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/12/the_true_history_of_the_koran_in_america/)


iThomas S. Kidd, "Is it worse to follow Mahomet than the Devil?," Church History 72:4 (December 2003): 766-790.
iiTed Widmer, "People of the Book, the True History of the Koran in America," Boston Globe, Sept. 12, 2010 (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/12/the_true_history_of_the_koran_in_america/).
iiiThe Boston Globe, Sept. 12, 2010.
ivThe Koran, Commonly Called the Alkoran of Mohammed, trans. George Sale (London: 1734).
vKevin J. Hayes, "How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an," Early American Literature 39:2 (2004): 247-261.
viHayes, 255.
viiThe Sublime Qur'an, trans. Laleh Bakhtiar (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2007).
viiiHayes, 254.
ixThe Constitution of Medina, http://www.constitution.org/cons/medina/macharter.htm. [Original Source: Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, trans. A. Guillaume (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1955)] (February 2, 2012).
xThe Declaration of Independence, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html [Original Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1776)] (February 2, 2012).
xiHayes, 259.
xiiThe Sublime Qur'an, Surah 2:62.
xiiiThe United States Constitution, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html [Original Source: National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1787)] (Feburary 2, 2012).
xivSebastian R. Prange, "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an," Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2011, 2-7.
xvHayes, 257.
xviChristopher Hitchens, "Jefferson's Qur'an: What the founder really thought about Islam," Salon, Jan. 9, 2007 (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2007/01/jeffersons_quran.html).
xviiThe Boston Globe, Sept. 12, 2010.

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